British coalition strained after Liberals' losses

6th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain's government was under strain Friday as the Liberal Democrats said voters in local elections had made them scapegoats for deep spending cuts introduced by the Conservative-led coalition.

The party led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg suffered huge losses across England in Thursday's elections for local councils, while Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives survived largely unscathed.

A wretched day for the Lib Dems, the junior partners in the year-old coalition, looked set to get worse as voters appeared to have decisively rejected a change to the electoral system in a referendum held Thursday.

Clegg said his party had taken the brunt of the blame for the swingeing cuts to public spending introduced by the coalition to rein in Britain's record deficit, but insisted the Lib Dems would soldier on in the coalition.

"We have taken a real knock," Clegg said. "We've clearly had bad results overnight and we now need to learn the lessons, get up, dust ourselves down and move on.

"Where there is real anxiety about the deficit reduction plans that we are having to put in place, we are clearly getting the brunt of the blame."

Clegg looked set for more humiliation when results are announced late Friday in the referendum on whether to switch to the alternative vote (AV) system for electing lawmakers to the British parliament, in which voters rank candidates by preference.

Campaigning for the vote pitted the centre-right Conservatives against the centrist Liberal Democrats almost exactly 12 months since they joined forces in an unlikely coalition of erstwhile political enemies.

The Conservatives back retaining the current first-past-the-post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, while Clegg led the campaign for AV, a system which would benefit smaller parties like the Lib Dems.

Senior party figures said trust between the two parties had been badly damaged by a vitriolic referendum campaign in which the Lib Dems accused the Tories of making unfounded claims about the cost of introducing AV.

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown hit out at Cameron for failing to distance himself from the "No" campaign's attacks on the party.

"The prime minister sets the tone of the politics for the nation. Mr Cameron had many, many occasions to dissociate himself from a campaign -- by the way, funded by his party -- whose primary purpose was personalised politics attacking his principal coalition partner and spreading scaremongering," Ashdown told ITV television.

Relations between the Lib Dems and Conservatives would be more "businesslike" in future, Ashdown said.

"The consequence is not that the coalition will break, there's a job to be done, it still will be done.

"But you cannot behave in that manner without affecting the trust and goodwill.

"It has been so far a relationship lubricated by collegiality, congeniality and trust. There will be less of that now."

The referendum and the local elections in England on Thursday were held alongside elections for the devolved national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond's hopes of holding a referendum on independence were boosted after his governing Scottish National Party (SNP) won a second term with a surge in support.

The SNP pulled off what Salmond called a "stunning victory", taking a string of seats off the main opposition Labour Party although it was not immediately clear if the party could win an overall majority.

He pledged to bring forward a referendum on Scottish independence within the next four years, something he could not deliver in his first term in charge as the SNP were outnumbered by unionists in the Holyrood assembly.

"Just as the people have bestowed trust in us, we must trust the people as well, and that is why in this term of the parliament we shall bring forward a referendum and trust the people with Scotland's own constitutional future," Salmond said.

In Wales, votes were still being counted but Labour was hoping to regain overall control of the national assembly, having spent the past four years in government with the left-wing nationalists Plaid Cymru.

© 2011 AFP

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